Hustvedt’s in­ven­tive por­trait of the artist

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

SIRI Hustvedt’s sixth novel ar­rives like a fully formed new ad­di­tion to a fam­ily, the lat­est in a line of sib­lings all blessed with si­mul­ta­ne­ously unique and uni­fy­ing fea­tures. All the recog­nis­able fea­tures are present and cor­rect: a mul­ti­lay­ered nar­ra­tive, themes of iden­tity and per­cep­tion, var­i­ous per­spec­tives (both sharpeyed and blink­ered), trau­mas and anx­i­eties, and med­i­ta­tions on, or in­fu­sions of, vis­ual art, phi­los­o­phy and lit­er­a­ture.

Yet while The Blaz­ing World re­sem­bles the nov­els that pre­ceded it, there is no ev­i­dence of its au­thor rest­ing on her lau­rels and churn­ing out fac­sim­ile fic­tion. In fact, Hustvedt has upped the stakes by tak­ing those fa­mil­iar and de­pend­able con­stituents and re­fig­ur­ing or re­ex­am­in­ing them.

Read­ers ex­pect­ing a straight-out page-turner along the lines of Hustvedt’s 2003 best­seller What I Loved may be dis­ap­pointed. The Blaz­ing World is less con­ven­tional and far more in­tri­cate, crammed with post­mod­ern trick­ery and lin­guis­tic frills that keep us en­gaged and stim­u­lated but also baf­fled.

This is a book within a book. In an ‘‘edi­tor’s in­tro­duc­tion’’, a (fic­tional) pro­fes­sor of aes­thet­ics named IV Hess ex­plains how artist Har­riet Bur­den duped the art world by us­ing three men

March 29-30, 2014 as fronts for her cre­ative work. Her project Mask­ings, the great swan­song be­fore her death, was a ploy in­tended “not only to ex­pose the anti-fe­male bias of the art world, but to un­cover the com­plex work­ings of hu­man per­cep­tion’’.

Hess’s “book’’ (which is Hustvedt’s novel) is a com­pen­dium of documents re­lat­ing to Bur­den that, taken as a whole, at­tempt to get to the heart of the hoax and shine a much-needed light on a reclu­sive and bril­liant mind.

Hess’s main source ma­te­rial is the collection of 24 pri­vate jour­nals Bur­den left be­hind, stuffed full of bio­graph­i­cal thoughts and deeds and in­ter­larded with notes on favourite writ­ers and thinkers. Hess pads this out with the fruits of her sleuth-work: in­ter­view tran­scripts of fam­ily and friends, writ­ten state­ments and re­views from bi­og­ra­phers, crit­ics and fel­low artists.

We pro­ceed semi-chrono­log­i­cally and wit­ness two Bur­dens dur­ing two phases. In the first, af­ter the death of her art-dealer hus­band, she re­tires from “that in­ces­tu­ous, mon­eyed, whirring glob­ule’’ that is the Man­hat­tan art world, shun­ning “the whosits and what­sits, the duke and duchesses of moolah, the muck­ety-mucks with ac­quired tastes’’.

In the sec­ond, she rein­vents her­self by emerg­ing from her grief, tak­ing a lover and putting into play her “pseudony­mous project’’.

Hustvedt’s novel is es­sen­tially a col­lage of frag­mented texts and de­lib­er­ately con­join­ing and con­flict­ing ideas. Its mot­ley out­looks en­able us to see Bur­den from var­i­ous an­gles.

Best friend Rachel pre­sents Bur­den at var­i­ous stages of her life — school­girl, mother, artist — of­fer­ing a psy­cho­log­i­cal eval­u­a­tion , whereas late-life com­pan­ion Bruno dis­cusses their re­la­tion­ship. Daugh­ter Maisie ex­pounds on the doc­u­men­tary she has made, her mother the sub­ject, while one of Bur­den’s “masks’’, the colourful Phineas Q.•Eldridge, de­scribes how “Harry and I made the per­fect drag cou­ple’’.

But as we take in each point of view, we also find our­selves on our toes. The more char­ac­ter as­sess­ments we get, the more Bur­dens sprout up, each more slip­pery than the last. A sus­pi­cion emerges that Bur­den, a self-pro­claimed “trick­ster’’, has fic­tion­alised her note­books, her recorded truth be­ing merely “her own wish­ful ver­sion of events’’.

Does she hood­wink the reader with her prose the same way she has duped the art world with her art? “There is no clear bor­der be­tween re­mem­ber­ing and imag­in­ing,’’ Hustvedt tells us in The Sor­rows of an Amer­i­can (2008), and the same ap­plies here.

This is a novel that con­ceals and re­veals in equal mea­sure. Char­ac­ters hide be­hind aliases (the Crawler, the Barom­e­ter) or go by names so daft they ought to be nick­names (Sweet Au­tumn Pinkney, April Rain). The third artist Bur­den em­ploys to show her work is a tal­ented en­fant ter­ri­ble known only as Rune.

How­ever, there are in­stances where Hustvedt is too slick for her own good. We hear that Bur­den has left clues in her jour­nals — each one la­belled with a let­ter of the al­pha­bet — but un­earthing them means wad­ing through dream se­quences, acros­tics, quotes and foot­notes, and Bur­den’s son’s des­per­ately bad writ­ing.

Hess ad­mits to be­ing “fas­ci­nated, pro­voked, and frus­trated’’ by the note­books, an opin­ion we can’t help but share. When there is men­tion of “ob­scure nov­el­ist and es­say­ist, Siri Hustvedt’’ the book loses its re­sem­blance to Nabokov’s elab­o­rate meta-fic­tion Pale Fire and in­stead feels as if it is re­cy­cling the stock-in-trade tropes of Hustvedt’s hus­band, Paul Auster.

The Blaz­ing World works best when Hustvedt gets the bal­ance right and man­ages to shroud Bur­den in tan­ta­lis­ing mys­tery rather than smother her in a fug of opac­ity. It is here that we can ap­pre­ci­ate the novel as an in­tox­i­cat­ing “an­thol­ogy of voices’’, an in­ven­tive por­trait of the artist and a sear­ing cri­tique of the way we see and judge.

Mal­colm Forbes is a Berlin-based writer and critic.

Siri Hustvedt

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